For many families, the holidays are the only time of the year that several generations gather under one roof. So, while it may not seem appropriate to discuss death or disease at this joyous time of year, it’s a great time to take advantage of the togetherness by compiling a complete family health history.
“When we have an informative family health history, it can pinpoint diseases and conditions for which people might be at risk,” says Beth Peshkin, senior genetic counselor at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. “And unlike some genetic testing, it’s extremely inexpensive.”
Here are some tips on gathering the necessary information without putting a damper on the festivities.
Open the door gently. A tactful way to begin the conversation is to ask if anyone in the family has ever been interested in genealogy or compiled a family tree.
“A lot of times the younger generation doesn’t know that Aunt So-and-So collected all this information,”Peshkin says. “It’s an interest more and more people are developing.”
If no such info exists, or it doesn’t include many details about health, you can offer to take on a similar project. If more than one person seems interested in digging into genealogy, family interviews can be divvied up, and various tasks assigned.
Respect privacy. If your family seems open to some reminiscing then and there, just tread carefully on topics that might be sensitive. Let them tell stories and other positive memories that might come up without steering too hard back to painful ones. You can always ask for permission to follow up by phone after the holidays, when relatives have had a chance to gather their thoughts or look through old papers. You can also offer to take relatives one-on-one to a separate room where you can speak privately.
“Assure them, ‘We’re going to keep this between the family and a trusted physician,'” Peshkin advises. “Acknowledge that it may be uncomfortable to talk about, but that it could be very helpful to the other people in the family.”
Be thorough. Even if it’s collected in pieces, here’s the basic information you should assemble at minimum for a comprehensive history:
• How old are living family members?
• How old were others when they died, and what were the causes?
• Are there other major medical conditions that run in the family, especially cancer, diabetes and heart disease?
• Did anyone have unusual environmental exposure, such as working in a factory?
• Who smoked? When did they quit?
• Did any of the women have miscarriages or stillbirths?
• Are there any instances of mental illness, addiction or other behavioral health conditions?
• Go back as far as you can, “at least as far as your grandparents and their siblings,” Peshkin recommends. “An older living relative can be invaluable, and it’s good to get that information while people are around to share it.”
Follow through. After the holidays, check in with relatives who promised you information, and share what you’ve complied with family members who asked for it. You don’t have to rush to your doctor with the information unless something truly alarms you, and in that case, you can also go straight to a genetic counselor. (The National Society of Genetic Counselors, or NSGC, can help you find one in your area.) Otherwise, just run it by your family doctor on your next visit, and let your family members know what you’ve learned about the implications at the next group gathering, or as needed.
Tip: Download the NSGC’s helpful handout for drawing a family tree before you head out to the holiday gathering.